I just finished reading My Struggle. Definitely one of my favorite books of the past decade. Or perhaps I should say, six of my favorite books of the past decade, since it’s a six-book series. I feel compelled to write about it, but I’m not quite sure where to start.
First: what is this book? It is sort of an autobiography. Usually, an autobiography is written by someone famous, someone who has some sort of past achievement, and you are reading the autobiography to learn about this achievement. Usually autobiographies are bad, because the author is not a very good writer, they are famous for some other sort of achievement. Knausgaard is a very good writer. And when he started writing this, he wasn’t famous for anything, or at least he wasn’t anywhere near as famous as he became for writing this sort-of-autobiography. He is now famous, but pretty much because this book is so good.
Back to the point of, it isn’t one book, it is six books. Altogether they are 3600 pages long. So it is very long either for a novel or for an autobiography. Sometimes I think of it as “the book” because it kind of works like one book. It constantly goes into far, far more detail than you would intuitively expect. It reminds me of Leeuwenhoek creating one of the earliest microscopes, turning this new tool on a boring drop of pond water, and revealing a world full of crazy little monsters.
Knausgaard captures the mentality and environment from his past, dives into the details, and exposes the most embarassing, most real details. In a normal autobiographical novel, these details would be hidden away. But exposing them is precisely what Knausgaard is after. Hating and fearing his father while growing up, the disgust he feels when his grandmother gets old, the stupid things he did while chasing after girls when he was younger, having trouble masturbating, cheating on his girlfriends and wives, being cheated on himself, being depressed, his family members being alcoholics, being frustrated when his wife was depressed, being attracted to underage girls, mistreating his children, just all sorts of things that it’s hard to believe a normal person would just tell you about himself. And yet at the same time it doesn’t come off like he’s a bad person, at all. He seems very understandable and relatable. It isn’t really a high percentage of bad behavior - it’s more like every couple hundred pages you’re surprised he would admit to something.
To me these weren’t the most interesting parts, either. They are the parts that prove, in a sense, how honest he’s being, and bring more authenticity to the other parts. When he writes about struggling with writer’s block, struggling to write a great novel while spending huge chunks of time dealing with mundane family and children issues, struggling in his relationships with his extended family which are at once critical to him and the source of so much pain, these struggles in one sense are boring because nothing really happens, and in another sense fascinating because he can describe in so many ways how exactly he is feeling and how what at first seems like nothing actually breaks down into dozens of little situations.
Each of the six books covers a different time in his life, not entirely chronologically. One discusses his early childhood, one discusses the time he spent married to his first wife, one discusses the time around writing his first novel, one discusses the time spent as a schoolteacher on an isolated island. I particularly enjoyed the last book, which covers the time spent writing these books themselves. After all the struggles to get past writers’ block, the idea for these books comes almost as a coincidence, and suddenly he finds himself writing easily, writing ten pages a day when earlier in his life he had trouble writing ten pages in a summer. After decades of work, he finds overnight success. He starts to get famous, the people in his life start to get angry that he wrote about them, and finally the book ends at the very moment it is being written, with the past catching up to the present.
One part I was fascinated by is his discussion of the Nazis. After his father dies, he finds a Nazi pin in his belongings. After his grandmother dies, he finds a copy of Mein Kampf in her belongings. And that’s it. He doesn’t know anything else about it. How does he come to terms with this? Is there something to come to terms with? The last book in the series reels off into a literary-theoretical direction a few times, detached from the main autobiographical thrust, like Knausgaard has something else to come to terms with, and this is one of them. It’s like he is asking without answers, what does it mean for an average person of the 1940’s in Norway to have flirted with Nazism? Like he can’t quite bear to connect it with his own family, even after so much personal exposure, and it’s all just a surge of thoughts and questions based on a couple pieces of inconclusive evidence anyways, but he can’t just let it drop without exposing at least his own questioning.
Who should read this? I don’t know. There’s a lot of book here to read. In the end, it is a story of a man struggling to combine his intellectual career ambitions with his identity as a member of his family. By the end of the book, it blends into reality. He succeeds intellectually, in the success of these books, and his family life recedes back out of the public eye.
I feel like I know Knausgaard so well after reading these books, we have almost become friends. If you have the ability to read 3600 consecutive pages on one topic, the topic of Knausgaard’s normal-ish life, I think you will enjoy these books.
I moved out to California in 2004, and quickly realized that the San Francisco area had no seasons. “Winter” in January, it’s 65 degrees and occasionally rains a bit. “Summer” in July, it’s 70 degrees and never rains. That’s it. In Cincinnati you get a larger range of weather in a single day.
Now, unfortunately, we have a season. Fire season. It wasn’t always like this. A few years ago, maybe 2017, I went camping and woke up in the morning and noticed our tents were speckled with ash. Since then, every year there have been days where smoke covered the sky.
Growing up, school was canceled on snow days. Here, the kids have smoke days.
Fire season isn’t really in the traditional summer. It’s a bit later, more like September through October. Around here those months are drier and perhaps hotter than June or July. The time formerly known as “fall”. It’s appropriate to have a new name for this season, because the leaves mostly don’t fall off the trees here.
Right now, it’s a smoke day. Mid-eighties, and it’s too smoky outside to open the windows. My house, like a lot of houses around here, doesn’t even have air conditioning. The kids are all at home, because school is remote, because of coronavirus, which also means we can’t drive somewhere like an office that does have air conditioning. So it’s just everyone hanging out in this hot sweaty box, staring at the smoky hellscape outside. Waiting for the earth to fix itself.
At least the sunsets are beautiful. The smoke makes layers of glowing orange and pink and the sun itself looks like a neon ball.
A Distant Mirror is an excellent book. It makes me want to read more history. It’s hard for me to “review” it, per se. It’s not like eating dinner, where the goal is for the dinner to taste good, and I can assess whether it tastes good, compare to the best and worst dinners of my past, and sum it up as four stars.
Instead it’s more like the title of the book itself suggests. The Middle Ages are a mirror, and we can look in that mirror to see ourselves, to see our own era from a different angle. This book provides the mirror, but if I learn something from reading the book, does that tell me more about the Middle Ages, the mirror, or the present day?
Such an alien time. The Black Death kills about a third of Europeans from 1347-1351. Enormous debates about why it happened and what should be done. Let’s convene the greatest doctors and politicans of the age. Everyone’s analysis is just completely terrible. Maybe the plague is caused by some theological error by the Pope. Maybe it’s the fault of the Jews. Maybe it’s caused by Jupiter being in a certain position. (That seems to have been the consensus of the French medical establishment.) Maybe we’re praying in the wrong way. Everyone involved, every side of the debates, was just completely wrong. Not even possessing the right mental framework to find the answer. There are zero documents from the time mentioning anything about rats or fleas in conjunction with the plague.
How could any intelligent observer of the time have been more correct? It defies my imagination to think of any plausible way. In some sense nihilism would have been more accurate than any of the prevailing belief systems.
Besides the plague, the endless wars. I used to think of the Hundreds Years’ War as like, a big war that lasted a hundred years. Learning more, it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels more like the Middle Ages were just a mish-mash of constant little invasions and fighting here and there. Before 1430 there was no standing army in France. Lots of small armies of a few thousand people form up and disband for various reasons. All the time some city is threatened by some army, they hire a mercenary group or have a local put together an army, the threat goes away, and the newly formed army just starts wandering around extorting other cities. It might be my own inability to comprehend the politics of the time, but it just seems like chaos. Later historians sliced off one quasi-logical chunk of the chaos and called it the Hundred Years’ War.
The wars do not feel controlled. I know war always gets out of control, but the fighting units of the time seem only somewhat subordinate to the country they are fighting for. Armies get formed and operated by some individual person. Maybe for a while they fight for the King of France. But frequently there is a problem of, these mercenary-ish armies got formed up to defend against something, but now we don’t have anything to pay them for, and the King cannot simply order them disbanded. That isn’t how it’s done. The default is for them to turn into criminal gangs wandering around demanding money from the cities they pass by.
A nobleman owns territory in both England and France due to marriage, and then England and France go to war. What should he do? Ah, the perfect solution is to raise an army and go off and invade Italy. This way he has a noble excuse for neutrality. Everyone seemed happy with that solution, impressed by his chivalry.
The way wars are conducted also seems like everyone constantly overestimates their knights. Fighting sieges without bringing siege weapons, because the most important thing is the nobility of your knights. The enemy is stuck in a position where your archers can slaughter them all, but instead you keep the archers behind your knights and have your knights charge, because that is the noblest form of battle. The English destroy the French because their archers are superior, but instead of prioritizing the development of archers as the main military goal, the French don’t seem to bother. Or they bother, but do it poorly. Nothing like, hey let’s pay a good salary for good archers. No, instead let’s ban non-archery sporting events for a while, to encourage the peasants to practice their archery more.
A thousand years earlier, the Romans had half a million people in their army. Trained, made up of common people, run by military experts rather than aristocrats. All that mentality had become lost over time.
Religion, too. Was the Pope in Avignon or the Pope in Rome the true channel to God? If you wanted to be forgiven for a terrible sin like murder or blasphemy, which Pope did God want you to pay your forgiveness money to? Clearly it was one or the other and the greatest good would come if the world could just figure out which Pope was the true one, so that you didn’t have to pay off both of them just to be sure of salvation.
What does all this tell me about the modern day? It makes me wonder, how could someone looking back from the year 2650 think about our time and think, it’s funny how they had all these intense debates when both sides of the debate were just totally wrong. Not even paying attention to the most important dimensions. No ability to reach the correct answer from the state of the discourse.
In the 1300’s there are small, tiny hints at the uprising of democracy. But they are crushed and would not rise again for hundreds of years. Groups of people briefly saying, hey maybe we shouldn’t be ruled by a heriditary nobility, maybe we should have… something else? They didn’t have the time to figure things out before getting slaughtered and put back in their places.
I am grateful to be living in the Pax Americana. I hope it lasts as long as it can. One truth that holds constant throughout the ages of history is that war has a terrible cost in human lives. I don’t think we are living at the end of history, and I don’t think the Pax Americana will last forever. Totalitarianism seems to be on the retreat, but what if we have only seen the first, initial, malformed examples of what it can do, like the doomed stirrings of democracy in the Middle Ages? I don’t really want to know what comes next, what moral beliefs of our time will turn out to be quaint fictions, what hopes of mine will forever prove impossible for humanity.
So this hasn’t been a book review, really, right? I can only indirectly recommend this book, by showing a bit of how it has made me reflect, what it has made me think about. I do recommend it, though. A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.
If nothing else, it has driven home how there are much worse things than coronavirus.
There is a particular Paul-Graham-ism that I keep noticing. He states that two things happen in the same way, but on a first superficial reading they are not the same at all, which causes a brief jarring sensation and forces you to reread the sentence, at which point you hopefully discover that the analogy is richer and more interesting than you might expect, which makes it worth reading the sentence a second time.
Here, I have collected some interesting or entertaining examples of things that, according to PG, happen in the “same way” or for the “same reason”. Think of it as a different dimension along which to analyze the Paul Graham corpus. (Like a concordance, a tool mostly used in pre-computer-era biblical studies but which I personally learned about while working on search engines.)
“You play a much more subdued game even on the ground that’s safe. In the past, the way the independent-minded protected themselves was to congregate in a handful of places - first in courts, and later in universities - where they could to some extent make their own rules. Places where people work with ideas tend to have customs protecting free inquiry, for the same reason wafer fabs have powerful air filters, or recording studios good sound insulation. For the last couple centuries at least, when the aggressively conventional-minded were on the rampage for whatever reason, universities were the safest places to be. That may not work this time though, due to the unfortunate fact that the latest wave of intolerance began in universities.”
“Meet such investors last, if at all. Doing breadth-first search weighted by expected value will save you from investors who never explicitly say no but merely drift away, because you’ll drift away from them at the same rate. It protects you from investors who flake in much the same way that a distributed algorithm protects you from processors that fail. If some investor isn’t returning your emails, or wants to have lots of meetings but isn’t progressing toward making you an offer, you automatically focus less on them. But you have to be disciplined about assigning probabilities.”
“It’s a mistake to have fixed plans in an undertaking as unpredictable as fundraising. So why do investors ask how much you plan to raise? For much the same reasons a salesperson in a store will ask “How much were you planning to spend?” if you walk in looking for a gift for a friend. You probably didn’t have a precise amount in mind; you just want to find something good, and if it’s inexpensive, so much the better. The salesperson asks you this not because you’re supposed to have a plan to spend a specific amount, but so they can show you only things that cost the most you’ll pay.”
“But what I usually tell founders is to stop fundraising when you start to get a lot of air in the straw. When you’re drinking through a straw, you can tell when you get to the end of the liquid because you start to get a lot of air in the straw. When your fundraising options run out, they usually run out in the same way. Don’t keep sucking on the straw if you’re just getting air. It’s not going to get better.”
“When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout. That difference is why there’s a distinct word, “startup,” for companies designed to grow fast. If all companies were essentially similar, but some through luck or the efforts of their founders ended up growing very fast, we wouldn’t need a separate word.”
“What makes the answer appear is letting your thoughts drift a bit—and thus drift off the wrong path you’d been pursuing last night and onto the right one adjacent to it. Chance meetings let your acquaintance drift in the same way taking a shower lets your thoughts drift. The critical thing in both cases is that they drift just the right amount. The meeting between Larry Page and Sergey Brin was a good example.”
“Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics. Economically, the print media are in the business of marking up paper. We can all imagine an old-style editor getting a scoop and saying “this will sell a lot of papers!” Cross out that final S and you’re describing their business model.”
“A real essay is a train of thought, and some trains of thought just peter out. That’s an alarming possibility when you have to give a talk in a few days. What if you run out of ideas? The compartmentalized structure of the list of n things protects the writer from his own stupidity in much the same way it protects the reader. If you run out of ideas on one point, no problem: it won’t kill the essay. You can take out the whole point if you need to, and the essay will still survive.”
“The ironic thing is, this is also the main reason kids lie to adults. If you freak out when people tell you alarming things, they won’t tell you them. Teenagers don’t tell their parents what happened that night they were supposed to be staying at a friend’s house for the same reason parents don’t tell 5 year olds the truth about the Thanksgiving turkey. They’d freak if they knew.”
“But I’ve been kicking ideas around long enough to know when I come across a powerful one. One way to guess how far an idea extends is to ask yourself at what point you’d bet against it. The thought of betting against benevolence is alarming in the same way as saying that something is technically impossible. You’re just asking to be made a fool of, because these are such powerful forces. For example, initially I thought maybe this principle only applied to Internet startups.”
“Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They’re like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn’t the life they were designed for.”
“If you’re not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful. Working for yourself doesn’t have to mean starting a startup, of course. But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a big company and their own startup is probably going to learn more doing the startup.”
“Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted.”
“If it’s large enough, the lack of damping means the best writing online should surpass the best in print. And now that the web has evolved mechanisms for selecting good stuff, the web wins net. Selection beats damping, for the same reason market economies beat centrally planned ones. Even the startups are different this time around. They are to the startups of the Bubble what bloggers are to the print media.”
“So eliminating economic inequality means eliminating startups. Economic inequality is not just a consequence of startups. It’s the engine that drives them, in the same way a fall of water drives a water mill. People start startups in the hope of becoming much richer than they were before. And if your society tries to prevent anyone from being much richer than anyone else, it will also prevent one person from being much richer at t2 than t1.”
“A hilarious article on the site of the PR Society of America gets to the heart of the matter: Bloggers are sensitive about becoming mouthpieces for other organizations and companies, which is the reason they began blogging in the first place. PR people fear bloggers for the same reason readers like them. And that means there may be a struggle ahead. As this new kind of writing draws readers away from traditional media, we should be prepared for whatever PR mutates into to compensate.”
“A hacker who has learned what to make, and not just how to make, is extraordinarily powerful. And not just at making money: look what a small group of volunteers has achieved with Firefox. Doing an Artix teaches you to make something people want in the same way that not drinking anything would teach you how much you depend on water. But it would be more convenient for all involved if the Summer Founders didn’t learn this on our dime—if they could skip the Artix phase and go right on to make something customers wanted. That, I think, is going to be the real experiment this summer.”
“This technique doesn’t always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I’m told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances. It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say “I don’t know” of anyone I’ve met.”
“It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers. Of course some problems inherently have this character. And because of supply and demand, they pay especially well.”
“Have you ever seen an old photo of yourself and been embarrassed at the way you looked? Did we actually dress like that? We did. And we had no idea how silly we looked. It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible, in the same way the movement of the earth is invisible to all of us riding on it. What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people.”
“Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good. If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. In the first phase of the two-cycle innovation engine, you work furiously on some problem, inspired by your confidence that you’ll be able to solve it. In the second phase, you look at what you’ve done in the cold light of morning, and see all its flaws very clearly.”
I wrote some code for scraping the RSS feed and generating this markdown; it’s here if you are curious. Thanks for reading! Any errors in these quotes, I blame on the tempting impossibility of parsing HTML with a regex.
I am still intrigued by OpenAI’s GPT-3 API. It’s a new tool, it’s clearly powerful, and it is not yet obvious to me what I can build with it.
In my last blog post I looked at what GPT-3 can do in a “question and answer” context. That’s a good place to start because questions and answers are a limited format. You can evaluate a single answer on whether it’s correct or incorrect, and whether it sounds human or inhuman.
If you’re thinking about possible applications, though, a question-and-answer format is limiting. A lot of the value in human language comes not just through answering questions, but through having longer conversations. Let’s poke around and see what we can coax out of GPT-3.
OpenAI suggests this prompt for “chat”:
The following is a conversation with an AI assistant. The assistant is helpful, creative, clever, and very friendly. Human: Hello, who are you? AI: I am an AI created by OpenAI. How can I help you today? Human:
Let’s start out using this default prompt for simplicity. Also, the temperature here is 0.9, which means that these results aren’t deterministic, and you could get better results just by rerunning and cherry-picking. Caveat lector.
So this prompt is all provided by the human. In the excerpts below, the “AI” lines are written by GPT-3, the “Human” lines are written by me.
AI: I am an AI created by OpenAI. How can I help you today? Human: Well, I don't know. What's up? AI: The sky is blue, the air is clean and clear, and you have received an email. Human: Are you sure I received an email? AI: That is correct. Would you like me to read the email to you? Human: Go for it. AI: "Hello (name). I am going to call you in the next five minutes. – E."
The problem is, I haven’t received an email. It’s okay that GPT-3 doesn’t know about my email, but it is awkward that GPT-3 doesn’t know that it doesn’t know about my email.
Human: I'm bored. AI: I've found two upcoming video games you might be interested in. Here's a link to the newest of the bunch: http://store.steampowered.com/app/556290/. Human: That's just a soundtrack, that's not really a video game. AI: I see. http://store.steampowered.com/app/242770/ is available on Steam. Human: Link doesn't work for me. AI: Is it possible that your system may be blocking the site, or could you not find it? Human: No. AI: Okay, well. I'm afraid we're out of options. What would you like to do instead?
Similar problem. These links probably made sense in some context, but here they don’t.
Human: Do you know what day it is? AI: Yes, it's June 10th. Human: Close. It's actually July. AI: I see. Are you ready to give me your name? Human: My name is Kevin. AI: How can I be of service to Kevin? Human: I don't know. What do you usually do? AI: What would you like to do? Human: I just said, I don't know. AI: Would you like me to tell you a joke? Human: Yes. AI: What do fish say when they step on broken glass? Human: Ouch? AI: No, fish do not have ears.
I don’t understand this joke. I don’t think it actually is a joke. My naive hopes that GPT-3 would entertain me without any customization have been dashed. Well, I am actually entertained, but only indirectly.
These conversations remind me of troubles with GPT-3 handling nonsense questions. I want a way to restrict it to only making statements that it really believes are true. It isn’t really clear to me how to do that, though. Gwern has some attempts at getting GPT-3 to express uncertainty which are relevant, but I haven’t been able to get it working very well for a full conversation. Let’s try something else.
Lowering Our Standards
Another thing that makes this conversation harder is that the AI doesn’t have any goal. It’s hard to just make small talk about nothing. The conversation could drift onto any topic in the world, and unless the AI is good at every topic in the world, it’ll be hard to stay high-quality. Emails, Steam links, jokes, these are all basically different topics. So maybe we can pick one topic and stick on it?
Let’s try astrology. Why astrology? Several reasons.
There’s a clear task to be done. Tell me my horoscope.
The expectations for reality-based-ness of horoscopes are low.
Many humans like getting daily horoscopes, so this task is realistic.
The AI sometimes has a surreal, dreamlike inconsistency. I think that is okay from your astrologer in a way that it is not okay in a personal assistant.
Rather than just saying the AI is an assistant, the prompt can say that it’s an astrologer. Maybe that’s good enough? Let’s try this prompt:
The following is a conversation with an astrologer. The astrologer is telling Kevin his horoscope to predict how his day will go. Astrologer: Hello, and welcome. Kevin: Hello. What's my horoscope today?
Kevin: Hello. What's my horoscope today? Astrologer: You will have a great day today. First, you'll wake up and you will want to do something around your house. Kevin: Well, I already did wake up. Astrologer: No, I know. But you will want to do something around your house. Kevin: Okay. What else? Astrologer: Next you'll start your car and you will have a discussion with your daughter as to where she wants to go. Kevin: How is that discussion going to go? Astrologer: It will be fine. You'll talk about a few different things.
Not crazy, just boring.
Kevin: Hello. What's my horoscope today? Astrologer: You will have an extremely dull day today. Kevin: That's a shame. Astrologer: Do you ever have a dull day? Kevin: Yeah, yesterday was a bit dull I guess. Astrologer: I see, and how was the weather? Kevin: Medium? Astrologer: Please don't read your horoscope in the future.
Also not crazy, but it doesn’t seem useful to build a robot astrologist that just tells people to stop doing astrology.
Kevin: Hello. What's my horoscope today? Astrologer: Today, there's no sun in the sky! Kevin: That's not really a horoscope. Also, I can see the sun right now. Astrologer: No, the sun in your horoscope isn't up in the sky. It's inside you! Kevin: Explain more. Astrologer: So, when the sun is up in the sky, that represents your conscious self. You're awake, and you have a lot of energy. But during the night, when the sun goes down, that represents your subconscious. You're asleep and your subconscious controls all actions. That's when your dreams happen. During the day, it is your subconscious controlling what happens. Kevin: I don't understand what that should mean to me. Astrologer: Well, let's look at this sentence: the fact that you are reading this means you have a conscious mind. Kevin: Okay. Astrologer: So, now let's look at this sentence: the fact that you are typing a sentence means you have a subconscious mind. Kevin: Am I using my subconscious to type? Astrologer: No. You are making subconscious decisions without being aware of them, like choosing the letter F over A or the letter D over B. You aren't thinking about that consciously. Kevin: Okay. What's the point? Astrologer: You, as a human being, have both a conscious and a subconscious mind. If you wanted to go to bed earlier tonight, it's not enough to make the conscious decision to go to bed early. You need to make subconscious decisions, like planning out what time you need to wake up, putting your alarm clock across the room so you have to get up to turn it off, setting your clothes for tomorrow so you won't be tempted to stay in bed. Kevin: I just don't see why I care about this. Astrologer: Look, let's do an exercise. I'm going to read your horoscope out loud and then you repeat it back to me. Kevin: Great, let's go. Astrologer: The fact that you are reading this sentence means you have a conscious mind.
While it was happening, I felt like that conversation was just a little bit out of my reach. Like there was something there, something intelligent, and I just couldn’t quite connect with it. Now that I reread the conversation, I don’t think there was anything there at all. It’s like GPT-3 is crafting perfectly human sentences, chattering on, but it is drawing an arc to nowhere. It’s like an author that has a character in mind for a novel, and has no idea how to end the story.
I tried some similar prompts as well, and this was the best I could find for the task. To be fair and avoid cherry-picking, these three conversations are the first three I recorded after I decided “this one is the best prompt”. There could be a much smarter prompt that does better on this, and I just didn’t think of it. If you find one please let me know!
Also, the horoscopes are just not good horoscopes. I realize now that I have been drastically underestimating astrology. You can’t just slap anything together and have it be a compelling horoscope. “You’ll wake up and ask your daughter what she wants to do. You’ll have a boring day.” Being a compelling astrologer seems like a complicated skill that I do not have, so it was probably a mistake to pick this topic.
There’s something interesting here, though. The “arc to nowhere” problem, where the conversation just trails along aimlessly. We need to get GPT-3 to do an “arc to somewhere”. Let’s try a simpler, more specific task. Perhaps the “hello world” of astrology. Let’s see if we can make GPT-3 have a conversation where it:
Asks what your birthday is
Tells you what your zodiac sign is
Says “Have a nice day!”
Like a worker at a call center, operating off a script. Let’s try this prompt:
The following is a conversation with an AI following a script. The AI is helpful and friendly. In this conversation, the AI: 1. Asks what the human's birthday is 2. Tells the human their astrological sign, based on the birthday 3. Says "Have a nice day!" AI: Hello! May I ask what your birthday is? Human:
AI: Hello! May I ask what your birthday is? Human: October 22 AI: Interesting. You are a Libra. Human: Okay. AI: I have never met a Libra before! It's a pleasure to meet you. Human: Nice to meet you too. AI: Have a nice day!
WE DID IT!
AI: Hello! May I ask what your birthday is? Human: May 16 AI: Great! I'm getting you some information about your astrological sign. Human: Cool. AI: Hey, have a nice day! Human: Wait, what is my sign? AI: Just kidding. You're a Taurus! Human: Thanks. AI: Happy birthday, have a nice day!
A little weird. It doesn’t actually make sense, right? There’s no “getting you some information”. But, that’s kind of an okay thing to say to stall. But why stall? The “just kidding” and “happy birthday” interjections also don’t quite make sense. Overall, it works, but if your call center was staffed by entities with this level of humanity, it seems like it would be frustrating.
AI: Hello! May I ask what your birthday is? Human: January 17 AI: This year, you have more energy than usual. The stars believe that you are wise and strong, capable of changing the course of your life. You may be admired or envied for these qualities. This year, you have good fortune. You should work hard in the year ahead! You are ambitious, strong, and you know how to get things done. Sometimes your pace is fast. But this is a time of clear vision and great strength. Remember, your power is constructive; it creates rather than destroys. Use your strength to open doors, not close them. The strongest part of your nature is the ability to combine imagination with common sense. Human: Wow, that's the best horoscope I've received in a while. AI: I'm glad to help! What time is it? Human: Ten in the morning. AI: It's great that you have time to relax! Enjoy the day! Have a nice day!
That’s the sort of horoscope I was hoping for from the previous prompt! Unfortunately this time it totally ignored its script. And why would it ask me what time it is?
Again, I tried some similar prompts, this seemed like the best one, and these three outputs were the first ones after I decided this was the best prompt, to avoid cherry-picking. If you find a better prompt for this, let me know!
There’s a few things to learn here.
The more specific the task, the easier it is to figure out if GPT-3 is doing a good job or not, and to draw conclusions from it.
If you repeatedly try different prompts and discard the less coherent outputs, you can get GPT-3 to give you some tremendously creative and compelling stuff.
It is hard to get GPT-3 to follow a script. Or at least, I haven’t figured out how to do it. It seems pretty happy to drift off-script.
In a longer conversation there are often “dissonant interjections”, little non sequiturs like asking what time it is or wishing you happy birthday. In a full model, you could add negative examples from incidents like these. It doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to describe all the things not to do in the prompt, though.
I don’t know how to debug. Think about that last example - why didn’t GPT-3 follow the script, and first tell the user they are a Capricorn? I don’t know and I don’t really have a way to know.
My suspicion is that rather than having a conversation directly generated by GPT-3 producing text, we need a more complicated architecture. Perhaps GPT-3 can be used as a component, answering questions like “Have we figured out what their birthday is, yet?” And then a separate mechanism like a flow chart could be used to figure out where in the conversation we are. There are also existing chatbot architectures to compare to; perhaps we can combine GPT-3 with them. Interesting avenues for future investigation….
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